In Conversation

CONSTANCE LEWALLEN with Phong Bui

State of Mind: New California Art circa 1970, curated by Constance Lewallen and Karen Moss and co-organized by the Orange County Museum of Art (OCMA) and the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAM/PFA), was first presented at the OCMA in the fall of 2011 as part of the Getty Research Institute’s initiative Pacific Standard Time. It subsequently traveled to BAM/PFA and has been touring the United States under the auspices of the Independent Curators International. Right after the festive opening reception of the exhibit at the Bronx Museum of the Arts (June 20–September 8, 2013), Lewallen paid a visit to the Rail’s headquarters to talk with publisher Phong Bui about the genesis of the exhibit, and more.

Portrait of Constance Lewallen. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

Phong Bui (Rail): This exhibit seems timely in that while showing a real breadth, and the consistency of various sorts of conceptual thinking, it’s in fact very useful in terms of ways in which an artist could reinvent their congenial mediums to express social, political, as well as artistic concerns.

Constance Lewallen: Well, what might be refreshing to general viewers who see the show, especially young artists, is the focus on the late ’60s and early ’70s before art was about the market. There was a collective and pervasive sense of freedom, especially in California, partly because there really was no infrastructure, or much of any kind of critical response, which in some ways worked to the artists’ advantage. They had freedom to do what they wanted, to be playful and inventive with new materials and mediums. Karen Moss, my co-curator, and I hope that’s what comes through in the exhibition.

Rail: Certainly. I think the show would attract particularly all artists, young and old, that good art doesn’t need to rely on high production.

Lewallen: Bruce Nauman said in an interview that once an artist complained to him that he couldn’t do something because he didn’t have enough money, and Bruce said, and I am paraphrasing, “Then just do it some other way.” In other words, money shouldn’t affect what you do as an artist. If you look at Nauman’s early work it couldn’t be more pared down.

Rail: Like walking in a taped square in the studio [“Walking in an Exaggerated Manner around the Perimeter of a Square,” (1967 – 68)].

Lewallen: The costs were practically nothing apart from the film and having it developed afterward. Nauman borrowed or rented the camera for very little from the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) where he was teaching. This was before the availability of portable video equipment. He simply set up the camera and enacted various exercises that were about movement, like, he said, doing dances without being a dancer. More importantly, it’s about setting a task then carrying it through to its conclusion. William Kentridge, whose work I admire enormously but never had thought of in terms of Nauman, said in a lecture he gave some years ago at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, that he was inspired by Nauman’s studio films. First, I thought perhaps the low-cost aesthetic appealed to him, but then I realized in a broader sense that Nauman gave permission to artists by insisting that whatever you do in your studio, that’s your art.

Rail: Not to mention that a work of art is the mere product of where it’s made, which inevitably evokes the spirit of that locale. We’re again reminded by Maurice Vlaminck’s witty remark, “Intelligence is international, stupidity is national, and art is local.” Let’s talk about Clyfford Still, who, as you mention in the conclusion of your essay for the catalogue, taught at SFAI from ’46 to ’50.

“There was a collective and pervasive sense of freedom, especially in California, partly because there really was no infrastructure, or much of any kind of critical response, which in some ways worked to the artists’ advantage.”

Lewallen: He had a huge influence on the Bay Area, because of his fierce stand against commercialism and his romantic view of the artist. The fact that he took it to such an extreme made a long-lasting impression, not just on his students. It’s not true any more, but for quite a long time Still’s legacy was very present.

Rail: Where and how do artists congregate in California?

Lewallen: In California, art schools were the communities that brought artists together—California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) in Southern California; SFAI in San Francisco, University of California, San Diego (U.C.S.D.), University of California, Davis (U.C. Davis), and so on. Paul Kos, for example, had not only been a student but also a longtime teacher at SFAI. Howard Fried was a student there as well. And in Los Angeles, both Ed Ruscha and Allen Ruppersberg went to the Chouinard Art Institute (now CalArts) where in foundational courses they learned the skills that you would need to be an illustrator or a graphic designer. Ruscha, under the pen name “Eddie Russia,” for example, did work as a layout designer for Artforum (1965 – 69). Similarly, Ruppersberg is an excellent draftsman. And then, of course, John Baldessari established the first post-studio department in 1970 at CalArts, a radical thing to do at that time­—the idea was that you did not need a studio if you’re weren’t making painting or sculpture. You could make your work in the street, in a field, on a typewriter, with a camera, and so on.

Rail: Like Baldessari’s “California Map Project” (1969), which is included in this show, made in the same year he gave up painting.

Lewallen: Exactly. Paul McCarthy, who graduated SFAI with a BFA and moved to L.A. to go to University of Southern California (USC), also gave up painting and began making conceptual works—video, film, sculpture, installation, and photography. His “May 1, 1971” in State of Mind is a slide projection work, a photographic record of what the street looked like outside of his window in 25 takes. But in general, whatever McCarthy does seems always to have a painterly quality to it.

Rail: I absolutely agree. Even in his recent and large bronzes and black walnut sculptures in his last two simultaneous shows at Hauser & Wirth.

Lewallen: And Karen and I liked juxtaposing McCarthy’s slide piece with Ed Ruscha’s “Every Building on Sunset Strip” (1966), because they’re both about the street, which served as both subject and site for many artists and is, therefore, one of the themes in the show. I should mention here that in order to emphasize the correspondences among artists throughout the state, we organized the show according to themes such as politics, public and private space, the street, etc.

Rail: And the street was a pronounced characteristic of both L.A. and, especially, San Francisco’s conceptual art—especially performance—where in New York you don’t usually associate the street with the performing art scene except for Tehching Hsieh’s third performance of his six one-year performances where he walked on the street without entering buildings for one whole year, 1981 – 1982, later than the time period of your show. More typical was Vito Acconci’s “Seedbed,” performed in 1972 at the Sonnabend Gallery in New York.

Lewallen: Acconci also did performance in the streets in New York. In fact, he had much in common with Bay Area performance artists and was often invited to participate in events at Tom Marioni’s Museum of Conceptual Art (MOCA). But, yes, East Coast performance often took place in a gallery or for the camera, which, of course, was also true in California. However, many Bay Area artists such as Bonnie Sherk and Linda Mary Montano preferred the street. In her “Sitting Still” series (1970), Sherk sat in an armchair on the walkway of the Golden Gate Bridge and on a variety of street corners partly because she wanted to reach a wide, non-art audience. Also, there were very few venues that would show women artists during that time. Linda Mary Montano did one of her “Chicken Dances” (1972) in front of the Reese Palley Gallery, which was one of the few galleries in San Francisco that did show radical art. She said, “This is as close as I was ever going to get to showing in this gallery.” There’s a lot of humor and absurdity in her work and many of her contemporaries, which is a West Coast characteristic. Artists in New York felt that if a work was humorous it wasn’t serious, failing to see that an artist could be humorous and serious simultaneously.

Bonnie Sherk: Portable Park II, 1970; performance documentation: Sherk with Caltrans officials and cows at the Highway 101 Mission/Van Ness off-ramp, San Francisco; courtesy of the artist.

Rail: You mean like Baldessari singing Sol LeWitt’s “Sentences on Conceptual Art”?

Lewallen: Yes. He admired Sol LeWitt. It wasn’t supposed to a critique, but rather a humorous homage. Baldessari, like his East Coast peers, was interested in language and systems, albeit often laced with humor. Another West Coast artist who based his work on linguistic systems is Charles Gaines, but it wasn’t the pervasive mode. Of course, artists like William T. Wiley who precedes this group of artists by a few years, and Bruce Nauman and Paul Kos were using language in the form of wordplay.

Rail: In a much different way than, say, Joseph Kosuth, Mel Bochner, Lawrence Weiner.

Lewallen: Yes, in the same way some of the artists who were working with the body were looking more to Europe than to the East Coast. One can see the influence of the Viennese Actionists, or Joseph Beuys. Terry Fox, who was an important artist in the Bay Area for about ten years, from ’68 to ’78, had spent time in Europe, revered Joseph Beuys and even did a performance with Beuys in 1971 at the Düsseldorf Art Academy called “Isolation Unit.” He introduced Beuys to artists in the Bay Area. People didn’t know about Joseph Beuys at that point—very little if at all. So there was a European connection­—jumping over New York.

Rail: I was curious about Bas Jan Ader’s three-part piece, “In Search of the Miraculous,” the second part of which involved his crossing the Atlantic Ocean in a small boat to reach Holland, his native country. Sadly, he was lost at sea. In titling the series “In Search of the Miraculous,” he was referring to P.D. Ouspensky’s famous book of the same title there seems to be a mystical aspect to his work.

Lewallen: Yes. And a romantic spirit for sure. There’s a kind of poignancy, not only because of the way he died—which is tragic—but the way in which his philosophical interest is manifest in everything he did. His filmed performances are humorous and at the same time deeply melancholic. There’s a new book on Jan Ader by Alexander Dumbadze (Bas Jan Ader: Death is Elsewhere), which is especially compelling in its account of his family background. Both his father, a minister, and mother sheltered Jews during World War II for which his father was executed at the very end of the war. Also, his father once biked from Holland to Palestine—perhaps there was an inner calling that was lurking in Ader’s psyche. Claire Copley was the gallerist in L.A. who showed Ader’s work, along with other European conceptual artists like Daniel Buren.

Rail: In my last conversation with Jock Reynolds he talked about his teacher at University of California Santa Cruz, Gurdon Woods.

Lewallen: Who later became the director of the San Francisco Art Institute.

Rail: Exactly. It was Woods, between 1968 and 1969, who applied and got a large grant from Carnegie Foundation, which enabled him to invite many Fluxus artists to come to the school such as Robert Watts, George Maciunas, John Cage, and Merce Cunningham. What about Allan Kaprow, who moved to California and taught at California Institute of Arts, before it was called CalArts, in 1969?

Lewallen: And he also taught at U.C.S.D. (1974 – 1993). And, yes, he definitely was an important influence both as an artist and as a teacher. We have one of his works in the show called “Pose, March 22, 1969” in which he instructed students in the Berkeley public schools to carry chairs throughout the city and sit, which Karen Moss describes more fully in the State of Mind catalog. Kaprow opened many doors to artists who either had seen his work or studied with him. His presence in California was enormously important.

Rail: So there was Kaprow on one hand and Nauman on the other.

Lewallen: Well, the idea of the show from the beginning was to encompass the entire state, north and south. Nauman is the only artist in the show who spent an equal period of time in both. He was a graduate student at U.C. Davis, which is north and east of San Francisco, from ’64 to ’66. He then moved down to San Francisco, rented a storefront studio in the Mission District, and taught part-time at SFAI. Nauman’s friends were older artists who taught at Davis like William T. Wiley and Bill Allen. Nauman taught early morning classes at the SFAI, and never really integrated himself into the school or the budding conceptual scene in San Francisco. Although they didn’t know him personally, because just as they were coming into the scene when Nauman moved to Pasadena, young Bay Area conceptual artists were aware of his presence. His 1969 exhibition of his film works at the Reese Palley Gallery was very influential on artists like Howard Fried, Paul Kos, and Terry Fox. Nauman stayed in Southern California throughout the ’70s and then he moved to the Southwest. His most important teacher was Wiley who was only three years older. Wiley saw something in Nauman when others at Davis did not understand what he was doing. For a class assignment he would, for example, take a plank of wood and lean it against a wall, or turn on a fan. Wiley would say, “Great! Terrific! I like your spirit of experimentation.”

Rail: Or fundamental inquiry and play.

Robert Kinmont, “8 Natural Handstands,” 1969/2009 (detail). Nine black-and-white photographs; courtesy of Alexander and Bonin, New York. Photo: Bill Orcutt.

Lewallen: Exactly. As I said before, Karen and I decided to create a structure that would allow us to show that artists throughout the state shared certain characteristics. However, there were differences—to say there weren’t would not be right. It’s pretty obvious that in Southern California there was a strong interest in popular culture and Hollywood, which you can see in the works of Ruscha, Bill Leavitt, and Ruppersberg, for example. Whereas Northern Californians were more invested in body art. An exception was Chris Burden who had an affinity with artists in the north. In fact, he came up to San Francisco and did several performances, including “Fire Roll” (1973) where he set fire to a pair of pants and then rolled on the ground until he extinguished the fire. There was a lot more live performance going on in Northern California than there was in Southern California. Many people have told me that during the ’70s on any given night you could attend a performance somewhere—whether it be at the SFAI, or MCA, or at the Berkeley Art Museum (one of the few museums anywhere that presented performance from the start), or in one of the other 15 or so alternative spaces, which were getting financial support from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).

Rail: Jim Melchert, one of the participating artists in the show, was the director of the Visual Arts Program at the NEA (1977 – 1981).

Lewallen: He later became the director of the American Academy in Rome for four years (1984 – 1988). Melchert is an amazing man—he has contributed in more ways than just through his own art. He’s been a great inspiration to many artists; in fact some of the artists in the show, Paul Cotton (now Adam II) and Stephen Laub, and later Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, were his students. Charles Simonds, a New York artist who did his undergraduate work at Berkeley, was his student and credits Melchert with showing him that clay, as a medium, was a viable fine art material.

Rail: That makes great sense.

Lewallen: As you know, Melchert started out as a ceramic artist (and currently works with tiles) but in the ’70s he became very interested in performance and other alternative modes.

Rail: What about the political climax that may have affected the differences in how artists made works in L.A. as opposed to those in San Francisco?

Lewallen: When we mention Southern California we’re not just talking about L.A. but also San Diego, specifically U.C.S.D. where, you know, Martha Rosler, Fred Lonidier, and Allan Sekula were students, and Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison, David and Eleanor Antin taught. It’s ironic, because San Diego is a conservative city, very military-oriented, full of wealthy retirees, and so on, but U.C.S.D. and the Salk Institute combined were the center of a huge amount of political, Marxist intellectual activity. Sekula’s piece, “Untitled Slide Sequence” (1972), which is in the show, was his first major work. It is composed of 25 projected black-and-white slides showing workers leaving a factory. Ever since then Sekula’s work has been centered on labor issues. The same thing can be said of Lonidier’s work, though his piece in the show, “29 Arrests” (1972), documents young war protesters getting arrested. In the Bay Area, Sam’s Café, a collaborative of three artists, Terri Keyser, Marc Keyser, and David Shire, two of whom were students at Berkeley, made a lot of provocative art works using the strategies of civil disobedience, as did Joe Hawley, Mel Henderson, and Alfred Young who staged spectacular street performances, as well as, “Oil” (September 1969), when they spelled out the word “oil” in non-toxic blue dye on the bay outside the Chevron Refinery in Richmond in anticipation of a huge oil spill in January 1971 near the Golden Gate Bridge. Most of the artists who made direct social/political works were either in San Diego or San Francisco. The Los Angeles-based Chicano collective Asco was an exception. There were many more artists who were very involved in anti-war and Civil Rights activities throughout the state, but they didn’t necessarily reveal those concerns in their work. That was true in New York, too.

Rail: Right. Like Carl Andre, for instance, was an active member of Art Worker’s Coalition (AWC), but you don’t see that political aspect in his work whatsoever.

Martha Rosler, “First Lady (Pat Nixon),” 1972. From the series Bringing the War Home: House Beautiful, 1967–72; photomontage; 20 × 24”. Courtesy of the artist, Brooklyn, New York, and Mitchell-Innes
and Nash Gallery, New York.

Lewallen: However, with the rise of feminism, and the First Feminist Art Program in Fresno, which was started by Judy Chicago in 1970, and then moved to CalArts, we see women throughout the state—Barbara Smith, Suzanne Lacy, Susan Mogul, Ilene Segalove, Lynn Hershman, Martha Rosler—making work that deals with feminist issues.

Rail: Exactly. Just to follow up on another side of Nauman’s work, in addition to his use of the body both as subject and object, ways in which he could explore its sculptural potentials and limits, as well as means of self-understanding and transformation, I mean the projected psychological and perceptual space that alter viewers’ perception like the “Yellow Room (Triangular)” (1973) you have included in the show.

Lewallen: Right after the remarkable body of work that he made as a student and the few years after, essentially with no material resources, Nauman began to make architectural, perceptual pieces, which like most of his work cause discomfort or disorientation. Longtime CalArts professor Michael Asher, who sadly died just a few months ago in October, also made works in relationship to architecture. Asher adhered to the basic idea of conceptualism in his nearly complete rejection of the object. His works were inextricably tied to the site and situation, as when he removed all of the windows at the Clocktower Gallery in New York so that you experienced the rain and the wind, or a series of forced air pieces from late ’60s. Only one of these, the “Column of Air” (1966 ­­­­– 67), can be reproduced, which we did when State of Mind was presented at the Berkeley Art Museum. The idea was to create a column of air that viewers could, but were not forced, to walk through, making them suddenly aware of the environment. It sounds simple, but it’s a very difficult piece to engineer. The Asher piece we have in the Bronx, “No Title” (1965-67), one of Asher’s few objects, is a rounded corner square of pink Plexiglass adhered to the wall in such a way that it appears to be embedded in the wall, making viewers aware of the surrounding architecture. Michael never had a gallery, having virtually nothing to sell. I mean, what other artist can you say that of?

Rail: Stephen Kaltenbach is an amazing discovery for those who are not familiar with his work!

Lewallen: I agree. Kaltenbach was a graduate student at U.C. Davis, a year behind Nauman. He moved to New York in 1967, taught at the School of Visual Arts, and made provocative conceptual works like his “Artforum Ads,” which we have in the show. He placed anonymous ads with texts like “Perpetrate a Hoax” and “Become a Legend” in a year’s worth of the publication, from November ’68 to December ’69. Kaltenbach was especially interested in creating anonymous artworks that weren’t necessarily recognized as art. He also designed room installations even before Nauman. Two were built in 1969, but none after until we built “Peaked Floor Room Construction” (1967) in State of Mind when it was installed at the OCMA (its first venue) and again when it moved to Berkeley. Unfortunately, there hasn’t been enough space in any of the subsequent venues, including the Bronx, to build a room. For various reasons Kaltenbach left New York after only a few years, went back to Northern California, and taught for decades at Sacramento State, all the while continuing to make art. He contributed a piece called “Kiss” (1969) for the landmark show When Attitudes Become Form in Bern, Switzerland, in which he instructed Harald Szeemann, the curator, to have a stamp made in the form of lips and to stamp lip prints all around the city. He told me he doesn’t really know if it ever was done. Kaltenbach was also included in the 9 at Leo Castelli at the Castelli Warehouse in 1968 along with Nauman, Alan Saret, Keith Sonnier, Bill Bollinger, Eva Hesse, Giovanni Anselmo, and Gilberto Zorio. Szeemann saw that show when he was researching Attitudes and included every piece. Szeemann listened to what artists were telling him.

Rail: Every curator should embrace that practice. Anyway, how would you re-evaluate Tom Marioni as an artist and his MOCA?

Lewallen: Marioni was important for his own work and activities he organized at his museum, which doubled as his studio. Marioni always had terrific ideas, which inspired great work. For example, he came up with what might have been the first sound show anywhere called Sound Sculpture As, in which Paul Kos’s “The Sound of Ice Melting” (1970) was included.

Rail: [Laughs.] It’s a ridiculously brilliant piece, which I first saw at Nyehaus Gallery with you and Bill Berkson last year, in fact.

Lewallen: Right. Some people think they hear that sound. [Laughter.] It’s called power of suggestion. But the microphones you see are live; otherwise, it wouldn’t be as effective. He also conceived All Night Sculptures, where Barbara Smith did her “Feed Me” performance in 1973. Marioni also premiered Avalanche magazine publisher Willoughby Sharp’s Body Works (1970) a video anthology of body-oriented performance, which Marioni claims was the first video art exhibition and first body art show. Marioni instituted weekly video screenings, “Free Beer,” in a bar below his museum. Every Wednesday night everyone was welcome to come, watch videos, and drink free beer.

Rail: I really am responsive to some of his statements about art as social activity.

Sam’s Café, “Terri Keyser, Marc Keyser, and David Shire, Is America Disposable?, 1970. Poster: offset lithography on paper; 30 × 20”.

Lewallen: This was way before relational aesthetics or social practice. His first piece of that kind, Marioni’s, “The Act of Drinking Beer with Friends is the Highest Form of Art” was presented at the Oakland Museum of California in 1970. The night before the show opened, he invited friends to come to the museum and have a party. The show then consisted of the debris from that party, emphasizing that the art was the social activity and the exhibition merely a record of what transpired. Now the art world is finally giving him credit for being one of the forerunners of socially engaged art.

Rail: Like equivalent to Beuys, minus objects.

Lewallen: Yes—Beuys was, like I said, important in the Bay Area, because of Terry Fox. I should also mention how important Willoughby Sharp was as a frequent visitor to the Bay Area. He was democratic in his attitude about what he included in the Avalanche. Long interviews with Nauman, Fox and Fried, for example, were published alongside those by major East Coast and Europeans artists, and the magazine reported on conceptual activities internationally. Avalanche was, therefore, one of the few ways artists internationally could learn of likeminded peers—artists didn’t travel like they do today.

Rail: Don’t you also think the work of Douglas Huebler should be re-examined?

Lewallen: Absolutely. Huebler started his career in Massachusetts making image/text work that was very much in tune with what other artists were doing on the East Coast. In 1976, he was invited to teach at CalArts, bringing with him ideas and information from the East Coast. Like Baldessari and Asher, he had a big influence as a teacher and artist. One of the reasons why his work hasn’t been as visible as it should is that he hasn’t had gallery representation in a long time. But now that Paula Cooper is representing his estate, people will have the opportunity to re-evaluate his work.

Paul McCarthy, “Face Painting Floor, White Line,” 1872, from Black and White Tapes, 1970-75. Video: black and white; sound; 32.50 min.

Rail: Like with Ant Farm.

Lewallen: Well, most everyone knows of the “Cadillac Ranch” (1974), where 10 Cadillacs are partly buried nose down into the earth on a ranch in Amarillo, Texas, although they might not know that it is by Ant Farm. Ant Farm was group of artists and architects founded by Chip Lord and Doug Michels, and soon joined by Curtis Schreier and Hudson Marquez. They designed and promoted giant inflatable structures as a form of alternative architecture. They also were pioneer video artists who did some amazing early videos like “Media Burn” (1975) and “The Eternal Frame” (1975). They teamed up with T.R. Uthco in “The Eternal Frame,” another Bay Area collaborative comprised of Doug Hall, Jody Procter, and Diane Andrews Hall. Collective artmaking, common now, was another innovation of the period, especially in Northern California. Since their retrospective that I curated in 2004, Ant Farm has been increasingly recognized for their innovative work, and Lord continues to do his own work in video and photography.

Rail: I love what Marsden Hartley wrote in his essay What’s American Art: “The creative spirit is at home wherever that spirit finds its breath to draw. It is neither international or national.”

Lewallen: True. We think the show will convey certain particular yet familiar kinds of energy, expansiveness, and experimentation, ways that humor and intelligence could coexist in every form of art, in every discipline.

Contributor

Phong Bui

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